The Caribbean origins of the waving inflatable tube man

In 1996, a legendary Carnival designer brought Caribbean flair to the Atlanta Olympics—and accidentally transformed car dealerships forever

Inflatable tube man origins

Photograph by Alamy Stock Photo

You know them as the aggressively cheery inflatable tube men, alerting you to Labor Day sales at the local auto dealership. Back in 1996, however, they were the never-before-seen “tall boys,” wowing spectators at the Atlanta Olympics with their ersatz gyrations. They have their roots in Caribbean artistry—dreamed up by one of the most celebrated carnival designers of all time.

Peter Minshall was already world-famous when he caught the eye of the Olympic steering committee. As a preteen, the Trinidadian fell in love with the glittering pageantry of carnival masquerade, known colloquially as mas. Carnival, which blends West African masquerade traditions and Catholic Mardi Gras revelry, began in Trinidad and Tobago in the 18th century, but today you’ll find celebrations across the Caribbean diaspora. Brought on as a lead designer for Atlanta, Minshall saw an opportunity to put Caribbean excellence in the spotlight. His Callaloo Company handcrafted thousands of costume elements, and the opening ceremony dazzled with masquerade pieces from carved wooden masks to towering calypso-playing puppets.

The tube dancers sprang from Minshall’s idea to incorporate inflatables. Sitting with a sketchpad one day, he considered a bizarre design: What if you stitched tube “arms” onto a tube “torso?” “You might get an incredible, undulating, dancing figure,” he said in a 2014 interview with the radio show 99% Invisible. Minshall brought on Israeli-American artist Doron Gazit, who figured out how to power them from beneath with forced air. The result? Vertiginous, 60-foot dancers, locs waving, gyrating as if at a giant carnival.

After the Olympics, Gazit patented the design—over the protests of Minshall—and began marketing the figures. Auto dealers liked their eye-catching moves, and farmers used them to chase off birds. Before long, the tall boys became ubiquitous, their cool Caribbean flair eclipsed by a leering grin. But flip on some calypso the next time you pass one on the highway, and you might just catch a glimpse of mas, undulating in the breeze.

This article appears in our May 2023 issue.